dialogue in fiction

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your Story

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your StoryBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Awkward or boring dialogue can make readers cringe and toss our books aside to find something better.

A few months ago, I wrote a post called 10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter. Because of how much everyone liked that post, I decided to do a follow up. So today I’m sharing the top 10 dialogue mistakes that kill your story (in no particular order).

#1 – Too Much Direct Address

Direct address is where we call a person by their name or title (e.g., Mother, Doc).

“Bob, would you pass the peas?”
“Of course, Mary.” He turned to look at Frank. “Frank, I heard you got a new job.”
“Yes, Bob. I’m liking it a lot.”

Almost no one talks this way, and the people who do are considered strange. You can use a name or title once in a while in your dialogue, but make sure you’re doing it strategically (for example, people will often use names during an argument).

#2 – Allowing a Character to Speak Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!)

How much do you enjoy being around a person who talks for five or ten or fifteen minutes (or more) without letting anyone else get a word in? Probably not that much.

Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just four reasons why allowing a character to talk uninterrupted is a problem. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead. The forth is that it can hurt the likeability and believability of your windbag character.

Even if your character is giving a speech of some kind, you need to interrupt them with body language, actions by other characters, or internal dialogue from the point-of-view character.

#3 – Dialogue That’s Too Formal

This could be someone who uses multisyllabic words when a simple word will do, it could be a character who always uses perfect grammar or doesn’t use contractions, or it could be a character who always speaks in complete sentences and never uses a sentence fragment.

You might have a good reason for wanting to do one of these things, but most readers will find it awkward. We don’t talk this way in real life, and the rare people who do are considered stuck up.

#4 – Dialogue That Repeats What’s Also in Action or Internal Dialogue

This is also known as redundancy. It can happen on a small scale.

He shook his head. “No.”

Or it can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).

#5 – Creative Dialogue Tags

A creative dialogue tag looks like this:

“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) their sentence, you’re violating the show, don’t tell principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. And if they’re used indiscriminately, they can give your writing a cartoonish feel.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead—try to hiss or growl an entire sentence. Or try to laugh or snarl an entire sentence.

#6 – Not Making It Clear Who’s Speaking

Do not make your reader guess who’s speaking or count back through your lines of dialogue to figure out who said what.

If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking. If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.

But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

#7 – Too Much Filler Dialogue

We don’t need to hear our characters say hello, ask each other how they’ve been, and all the other small talk we make on a daily basis because it’s the polite thing to do. Those don’t forward the story, and they’re boring to read.

We also shouldn’t fill our dialogue with a lot of umms, ers, and ahs. Every word needs to count.

#8 – As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue

As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit (because we’re trying to give the reader some information we think they need to know), and it’s unnatural.

If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation, and real people won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.

#9 – Dialogue That Sounds the Same No Matter Who’s Speaking

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue. They might all sound like you or like each other.

#10 – Dialogue That Requires a Rosetta Stone to Decode

“S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.” (From Chapter 10 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe)

Dialect written out phonetically like this is a bad idea for many reasons. It’s frustrating to your reader. You don’t want anyone to have to work that hard just to understand what your characters are saying. It pulls them out of the fictional dream. Beyond this, dialect used in this way sounds forced and can even border on demeaning to whatever group you’re trying to imitate.

Do you have any other common dialogue problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing? Or when you’re reading?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Samuel Alves Rosa

How to Format Internal Dialogue

How to Format Inner DialogueBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome to the next installment in my series on inner dialogue. If you missed the earlier post on Inner Dialogue in Your Fiction: What It Is and How to Tell Good from Bad, make sure you take the time to read it as well. (And my apologies for such a long gap between them. I’ve been sick, and the blog here suffered right along with me.)

As you might have noticed from the comments last time, when it comes to internal dialogue, the most common question is “how do I format it?” It’s easier than you think.

The answer depends on what point of view you’re writing in.

In Omniscient POV Use Italics and a Tag

Because omniscient POV maintains some distance from each character and the author’s voice is dominant, it’s the time when you need to make sure you’ve clearly attributed the thoughts. If you don’t, you risk the reader not knowing whose thoughts they’re listening to. (Please remember that in these examples I’m not trying to illustrate how the POVs are different. I’m only trying to show you how to format your internal dialogue.)

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar, she thought. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

As you might have guessed, this clarity and ability to put thoughts in present tense while writing in past tense is one of the often overlooked advantages of writing in omniscient POV.

In Regular Third Person POV Use Only Italics…Or Don’t Use Anything

You have options if you’re writing third person point of view but aren’t bringing it to the intimate level of deep POV.

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

Because we’re in third person point of view, we’ll already know that any thoughts are Melody’s so we don’t need the “she thought” of omniscient POV. The italics clue the reader in that we’re now hearing Melody’s exact thoughts.

The italics also allow you to use present tense thoughts in an otherwise past tense story if you want, without jarring the reader. If you choose to give the thoughts in present tense, just remember to be consistent throughout and, whenever possible, set them off in their own paragraph in the same way that you would dialogue.

You could also write this as…

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Melody yanked her hand away. Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed her? “I’m maxed out this month.”

You don’t have to add the action beat in front of the internal dialogue to make it work without italics, but I wanted to show you that it sometimes helps to ground the reader. Also, if you don’t use italics, you should keep it in past tense (assuming the rest of the story is in past tense).

For First Person or Deep POV (Third Person) Don’t Use Italics or Tags

You don’t need italics or any other signal. You’re deep inside your character’s head, and your reader will understand that what they’re reading is what the character is thinking.

The trick with this is that, to maintain consistency and keep from jarring the reader, you must maintain a consistent tense. You can’t be switching to present tense in your internal dialogue if you’re otherwise writing in past tense.

Ronald took my hand and flashed me a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

No matter what point of view you’re writing in, never, ever use quotation marks for internal dialogue. Quotation marks signal spoken dialogue.

What do I do if I’m writing a paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction story and people can speak telepathically?

This is actually the trickiest of all because now you’re juggling externally spoken dialogue, internal dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, and head speak where two characters are speaking privately in their minds.

Here’s what I recommend to keep it all straight.

  • Use quotation marks for normal dialogue spoken out loud.  
  • For inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, don’t use italics or tags. Keep the tense consistent, and format it the way I showed you above for deep POV (third person).
  • For head speak, use italics. The first time this happens, you’ll need to use a tag or signal to the reader somehow that they’re talking in their heads. Once you establish that italics mean “we’re talking telepathically,” the reader will assume that’s the case every time they see italics. This is why you can’t then also use italics for inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself.

So for the sake of demonstration, let’s assume Ronald and Melody from our example are telepaths now, and they’ve met up with a third character named Edgar who owns a classic space cruiser that Ronald desperately wants to buy.

“Sorry, bro.” Edgar rolled his three eyes. “I need cash now, not someday after you’ve been flying her for months.”
Ronald took my hand. Loan me the money? he asked telepathically. I’ll pay you back.
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? I’m maxed out this month. You’ll have to ask your sister.

Not the best written example, but it gives you an idea of how it would look.

Do you have any more questions about internal dialogue? Do you prefer to see it with or without italics?

Want to learn more? Check out my book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide!

(You might also be interested in checking out Deep Point of View, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Top 5 Writing Posts of 2012

I’m officially on a blogging vacation over the holidays, but for those of you who are now stuffed and content and looking for some reading, here are my top-ranked writing posts of 2012. Enjoy! 🙂

What Do We Mean By Strong Female Characters?

How to Keep Strong Female Characters Likeable

Four Little-Known Factors that Could Destroy Your Blog’s Chances of Success

7 Tricks to Add Variety to Your Dialogue

5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

Going into the New Year, I have a lot of exciting things planned, but I always want this blog to be helpful to you. If there’s something writing-related you want me to cover, leave it in the comments.

Also, don’t miss the special discount I’m offering on the January session of my Twitter course.

Click here to register for the Silver Level.

Click here to register for the Bronze Level.

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How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your Characters

How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your CharactersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do all your characters sound like you? Or an idealized version of you?

Do they all sound like each other?

Would you recognize if they did?

Try this – Could you delete a character and give their lines to someone else without a problem? Could you swap the dialogue of two characters in a scene without it changing anything significant about the characters?

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue.

Whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or something in between, you can benefit from figuring out three things about how your character would speak before you start to write or re-write.

Know the Regionalisms from Where Your Character Grew Up or Now Lives

Small touches in word choice make a big difference. Take my husband and I as examples. I’m a Canadian from Southwestern Ontario. My husband is an American from Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.

I say pop – He says soda.
I say supper – He says dinner.
I say chocolate bar – He says candy bar.

Along with small differences in word choice, characters from different regions will have different catch words. Stephen King’s characters from Maine say “Ayuh” as an affirmative. Canadians will use “eh” as both an affirmative and a question, depending on the situation.

If you’re going to use a regionalism, make sure you understand it properly or you’re going to disgust a large portion of your readers. Thanks to the internet, there’s no excuse for not contacting someone who lives in that region and asking them for some tips.

If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, regionalism can be a goldmine for adding depth to your world. For example, does a regionalism give away a character’s real nationality?

In the novel Lisa Hall-Wilson and I are currently working on together, our Amazon protagonist has no word for “brother.” In her society, all male babies are killed so brothers don’t exist. The closet she can come is saying “son of your father.”

Know Your Character’s Education Level, IQ, and Station in Life

While even the most highly educated among us rarely uses perfect grammar when we speak, grammatical errors, strategically used, say much about a character.

The character who says “I didn’t see nobody” isn’t the same as the character who says “I didn’t see anyone.”

A character who’s highly educated or well-read will also naturally drop ten-dollar words into their speech at times. (Don’t overuse this and send your readers running for a dictionary…or away from your book. As with grammatical errors, choose your spots for maximum impact.)

I’m a writer, married to an editor, and we’re both avid readers. Words we’ve recently used in casual conversation between us include egregious, deleterious, incongruous, tout, and insipid. (Yes, I know we’re weird.)

What if your character’s first language isn’t English?

My grandparents were born in Slovakia (the poor, rural side of what used to be Czechoslovakia). My grandpa spoke no English when he first came to Canada, and he struggled because Slovakian is different from English in a very fundamental way. It depends on changing the ending of a word to indicate the word’s function in a sentence rather than on word order. According to my grandma, he would make mistakes like saying, “Throw the cow over the fence to some hay.”

Non-Native English speakers also struggle with definite and indefinite article usage (“the” “a”) and subject-verb agreement.

If you have a character who wasn’t born in an English-speaking country, you can play with these issues (again, use a light hand) to set their dialogue apart. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, do your races speak different languages? If you don’t have a Star Trek-esque universal translator, how will you handle this?

Know Your Character’s Personality

Is your character the kind who always sticks their foot in their mouth? Are they well-meaning or just so self-absorbed that they don’t realize they’ve said something stupid? What do they do after they stick their foot in their mouth? Do they apologize and try to explain or laugh it off?

Is your character confident or does she second guess herself? A confident character makes definitive statements. A character who second guesses herself will add qualifiers—I think, maybe, most. They’ll end their statements with a subtle request for reassurance—Right? Eh? Don’t you think? She’ll also ask questions rather than giving her opinion directly—Do you think that couch might look better over there? rather than The couch would look better over there.

Does your character have a problem with authority? Are they a control freak? Or are they naturally curious about the way things work? These types of characters will want to know the why and the reasons behind something rather than accepting what’s said at face value.

Is your character a gossip?

Does he jump to conclusions?

Is your character a concrete thinker or an abstract thinker? (I’m not talking about psychological development here, but rather how we naturally think about and make sense of the world.) A concrete thinker prefers to talk about what is rather than what might be. They don’t enjoy plays on words. They take things literally. An abstract thinker takes what is and projects into the future what might be. They enjoy puns and word plays, and if you listen to them explain a concept, they’ll often use metaphors. Many writers are abstract thinkers and don’t realize that there even is another way of thinking.

What other tricks do you have for making your character’s dialogue unique?

If you’ve missed the earlier installments in this series, you can find them here: 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks to Add Variety to Your Dialogue, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

Does Your Dialogue Deserve to ExistBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The biggest mistake writers make when it comes to dialogue isn’t what you might expect.

The biggest mistake we make is forgetting that dialogue—like everything else in fiction—needs a reason to exist.

If dialogue comes easily to you, then this is going to be something you need to watch. Because dialogue is your strength, your tendency will be to allow your dialogue to dominate your story.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can also trip you up. You’ll be prone to adding empty small talk or to depending on dialogue to the exclusion of other action, internal monologue, and description. A well-rounded story needs them all.

To give your dialogue a reason to exist, make sure every passage does at least one of these three things. (Bonus points if it does more than one.)

Reveal Character or Character Relationships

I’ll go into detail in my next dialogue post about revealing character in dialogue, so for now, think about how the way we speak to someone reveals our relationship to them.

Are they comfortable enough with each other to tease? To disagree?

If they give their opinion, do they do it in a way that shows they’re speaking to a superior, an equal, or an inferior? The way we give a suggestion to our boss is very different from the way we give a suggestion to our teenager.

People who are newly dating speak to each other differently from a couple who’s been married for five years. A newly dating couple will be more tentative, wanting to put their best foot forward. A couple who’s been married five years will have private jokes, old wounds, and a closeness that allows them to convey their meaning without explicitly stating it. If the marriage is good. How a couple speaks to each other reveals a lot about the condition of their marriage.

Whenever your character speaks to someone else, their dialogue should be tailored to who they’re speaking to. If you can swap the listener without changing the dialogue, you need to rethink how you’re writing it.

Advance the Plot

We hear the advice to “show, don’t tell” so often it’s almost clichéd.

Using dialogue to advance the plot makes our scenes more active, avoids author intrusion, and “shows.”

But what does it mean to say dialogue is advancing the plot? Dialogue can advance the plot by…

  • providing new information
  • increasing suspense, tension, or conflict
  • revealing new obstacles
  • reminding us of the characters’ scene or story goals

The trick to making this work is to avoid As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome.

A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.

E.g., “When our Aunt Edna died, I wasn’t upset because I didn’t know her that well.”

A character also won’t say something that wouldn’t come up in conversation because it’s common knowledge.

E.g., “Hi Mary, my best friend since childhood. Won’t you come into the new house I just bought?”

In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the easiest way to fix (and avoid) this problem is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.

Another solution is to pick a fight. Characters who are fighting will dredge up things the other character already knows and use them as weapons against each other.

Echo the Theme

Every good movie does this. According to Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, creating a line of dialogue to echo the theme isn’t negotiable—a movie must include it to work.

Good books will do it multiple times in subtle ways.

If you’re a regular reader of my Monday posts, you’ve watched me pull themes from books and movies and find a lesson for us.

In The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben is fed up with Peter acting out and shirking responsibility. He tells Peter that his father lived by a code: “If you can do good things for other people, you have the moral obligation to do those things.”

In Chapter 7 of The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss argue about which of them has the better chance of survival and of getting sponsors. Each believes it’s the other. Peeta turns to Haymitch (their mentor) in exasperation and says, “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”

Echoing the theme doesn’t have to be obvious. You can work your theme into dialogue using subtext and foreshadowing as well.

Does dialogue come easily to you? If so, do you find that when you revise you need to cut out dialogue that doesn’t have a purpose?

If you missed the 7 Ways to Add Variety to Your Dialogue and the 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, you can catch up by clicking the blue text.

Registration is also now open for A Growing Tweeter’s Guide to Twitter. If you’re new to Twitter or if you’ve been on Twitter for a while and just aren’t getting the results you want, this is a good place to start. The class is four weeks long and the Bronze level is only $50. A Silver and Gold level are also offered. Check them out on the Current Classes page at WANA International.

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7 Tricks to Add Variety to Your Dialogue

Add Variety to Fiction DialogueBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A simple back and forth exchange in dialogue is like a plain chicken breast. It’ll keep your body full and moving, but pretty soon your taste buds get bored. You need BBQ sauce. Or Ranch shake-and-bake. Or spicy raspberry-balsamic marinade. You need to add variety.

The same principle applies to your dialogue, and the best way to add variety is to imitate real speech patterns.

(1) Answer with a Question

When someone asks you a question you’d rather not answer, how do you react? Most people deflect.

“I tried calling you yesterday night. Where were you?”
“Where do you think I was?”

(2) Interrupt

Interruption can characterize a person who’s impatient or self-centered by nature. It can also heat up an argument or give the reader insight into a deteriorating relationship.

“You really need to—”
“I know. You don’t need to keep reminding me.”

(3) Let Silence Speak

In Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a man is trying to convince a woman to get an abortion. Her reaction—silence. And it conveys her resistance to his suggestion more clearly than if she’d said it aloud.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

Your character might resort to silence for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re passive-aggressive, maybe they’re afraid of angering the person they’re talking to, or maybe they feel like nothing they could say would make a difference anyway.

(4) Add a Beat in the Middle

Sometimes you’ll notice a pattern like this appearing in your dialogue.

Action beat. “Dialogue.”
“Dialogue,” tag.
Feeling. Action beat. “Dialogue.”
Action beat. “Dialogue.”
“Dialogue,” tag.

If it goes on for too long, the lack of variety in structure can become boring regardless of how thrilling the content of your dialogue is. Often you can fix it by simply inserting a beat in the middle of two sentences of dialogue.

Original: Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”
Revised: “I don’t like it here.” Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I want to go home.”

It adds a pause to the rhythm.

When to add a beat and when to leave the dialogue straight is almost more a matter of instinct and hearing the cadence of your character’s speech patterns than it is a scientific formula of tag here + beat there = interesting dialogue.

(This doesn’t violate the concept of F-A-D explained in my previous post on dialogue. It’s a variation of it. You’ll notice that the beat isn’t moved to the end of the dialogue, but is instead used as a pause in it, almost like the speaker is taking a breath–-the same way we do in real life.)

(5) Add Subtext

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, author and Hollywood script director Linda Seger describes subtext as “what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines.”

It’s that argument with your husband about the toothpaste tube that has nothing to do with toothpaste at all, the talk with your child that lets them know you found out they’ve been stealing even though you never mention the word theft, or the veiled threat from the woman whose job you got.

Try using subtext in an emotionally charged conversation that would otherwise be in danger of melodrama if you wrote it directly. You’ll also often find subtext in a conversation where characters can’t speak openly for fear of being overheard.

For more on subtext, read this excellent post by Shannon Donnelly at Writer’s in the Storm.

(6) Echo

In real life, we often echo a word when we’re nervous, lying, or stalling for time.

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

(7) Misdirection/Non-Response

And sometimes, if the conversation isn’t going where we want it to, we just refuse to go along with it.

“We’re going to lose our reservation. You almost ready to go?”
“I saw you with her again today.”

If you missed Part 1 of my series on dialogue, “5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know,” now’s a great time to go back and check it out.

I’d love to have your input as well. How do you add variety to your dialogue? Have you tried any of these techniques?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Photo Credit: Jer Wilcocks Photography (from my wedding)

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5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

“Dialogue is conversation–nothing more, nothing less” (Gloria Kempton).

A couple months back when I took a survey on what you wanted me to write about, one of the topics you asked me to cover was dialogue. So today I’m kicking off a new craft series.

Through the series, I’ll cover ways to add variety to your dialogue, handling some of the most common challenges in writing dialogue (like dialect), the purpose dialogue needs to serve in a scene to make the cut, and how to write dialogue unique to your characters. But first we need to tackle the basics of beats, tags, and punctuation. Get them wrong and you can ruin an otherwise well-written scene (and mark yourself as an amateur).

(1) Choose the Correct Form of Punctuation

Improper punctuation of dialogue is one of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts I edit and critique.

Use a comma at the end of a segment of dialogue (even a complete sentence) when followed by a tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said.

Use a question mark without a comma for a question. (This applies to exclamation marks too.)
Example: “Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy asked.
I could have replaced “asked” with “said” here and the punctuation would remain the same.

If a tag is dividing a sentence, use a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue (even if the comma wouldn’t normally go there in the same sentence if it wasn’t dialogue) and use a comma after the tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said, “because they burn my tongue.”

Use a period after a tag when the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said. “I refuse to eat them.”

Use a dash when dialogue is cut off or interrupted. Do not add any other punctuation.
“It wasn’t my—”
“Enough excuses.”

Use an ellipsis for dialogue that fades away.
Example: “I just . . .” She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I thought he loved me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly! They’re usually a sign that you’re trying to bolster weak dialogue. They’re also distracting!! (I’m wagging a finger at myself right now. I know they’re bad, but I do so love to use them.)

Don’t use colons or semi-colons in your dialogue at all. While this might seem like an arbitrary rule, colons and semi-colons just look unnatural in dialogue. For the most part, you should avoid them in your fiction entirely. The old joke is that you’re allowed one semi-colon per career, so use it wisely.

Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks in North America. If you’re not in North America, check some of the traditionally published books on your shelf to see where they place punctuation.

(2) Use a Tag or a Beat, But Not Both

A tag is a word such as “said” or “asked.” A beat is a piece of action used in place of a tag.

The point of a tag is to let the reader know who’s saying what. If you’ve shown them who’s talking through a beat, you don’t need to also tell them through a tag. It’s awkward and wordy to use both. (About one time out of 100 you can break this rule for effect.)

Wrong: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said, patting Luna on the head.

Right: My brother patted Luna on the head. “Your dog looks like an alien.”

Right: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

(3) F-A-D (Feelings/Thoughts-Action-Dialogue)

Another common mistake is to place your beat (the action) after your dialogue. Beats almost always come before dialogue. (I’ll talk about the exception next week.)

I can feel you rebelling already against the idea that you need to follow a particular order of feeling/thoughts, then action, then dialogue when you write. If you don’t follow this pattern though, your writing will feel off to your readers because you’ll unintentionally violate the law of cause coming before effect (or action coming before reaction). In life, which fiction imitates, there’s a natural order to things.

In life, we either have an emotional reaction or a mental reaction to an event first. It happens quickly. We see a gun, fear shoots through our body, and we think I don’t want to die. These emotions or thoughts cause us to act. Sometimes an action can be almost unconscious, a knee jerk reaction to your feelings or thoughts. Finally we speak because speech is externalizing what’s going on inside.  Speech, even when you’re angry, generally takes longer and requires more mental engagement. It’s a rational reaction.

Wrong: “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.” Emily shrugged.

Right: Emily shrugged. “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.”

I learned the acronym F-A-D from agent Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.

(4) Avoid Creativity In Your Tags

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) a sentence, you’re violating the “show don’t tell” principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. If you feel like you need to use a tag other than said, asked, and occasionally, whispered or shouted for the reader to understand your meaning, you need to rewrite your dialogue and the beats around it to make it stronger and clearer.

Trying to get creative with your tags also comes with other consequences. Said and asked are nearly invisible to readers. Our minds skip over them. More creative tags aren’t, so they can quickly become distracting and annoying.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead. Try to hiss or growl a word. I dare you.

(5) Place Your Tags/Beats Strategically

Always write John said, never said John. You’ll often find the latter in classic literature, but it went out of style decades ago. And this is one style that won’t be coming back.

When you have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat so readers know who’s talking before they start, or place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.

Example: “We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” Penthesilea said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less. Six stand ready today. We need only three.”

What’s your greatest struggle when it comes to writing dialogue? And, the real question, do you like cinnamon jelly beans?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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